Precious and precocious

As a new school year looms, the parents of a certain sector of pupils will be hoping for a little understanding. Because being labelled gifted is not always easy. Shane Gilchrist reports.

Adrienne Alexander remembers, vividly, the day when a Plunket nurse asked if her 1-year-old was saying his first words.

In fact - and this is told without a hint of parental pride - her son David was speaking full sentences by that stage.

By kindergarten, David was reading simple books, a development accepted by his parents but viewed with suspicion by others.

''We'd tell the kindy teacher he was reading and you'd get that look that suggests the proud mother whose son can recite the alphabet - whoop-de-do. Then they'd come back a month later and say, `oh my God, he can read','' Mrs Alexander recalls, adding: ''By primary school ... well, that was tricky.''

Accelerated a year at primary school and again at high school, David headed to the University of Otago at the age of 16, completed a master's degree in computer science at 20, and is now a professional computer game programmer based in Christchurch.

David (now 22) falls into the category ''gifted'', an adjective that, according to the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children, applies to 5% of pupils, young and older, who will again bring their own quirks and questions to classrooms throughout New Zealand next week as a new school year begins.

According to the Ministry of Education, the definition of giftedness encompasses, ''those with exceptional abilities relative to most other people. These individuals have certain learning characteristics that give them the potential to achieve outstanding performance.''

Often the terms ''gifted'' and ''talented'' are used together to express a single concept. Where the term is differentiated, giftedness is usually associated with high intelligence or aptitude, and talent is usually related to a high level of performance in such areas as music, art, craft, dance or sport. French Canadian educational psychologist Françoys Gagné defines giftedness as a naturally occurring ability, while the outward expression of that ability he labels talent.

It is now accepted that gifted and talented people are not simply those with high intelligence, but rather the terms represent a wide range of students with many different abilities. And though there are hundreds of definitions of gifted and talented, they can broadly be classified as conservative, liberal or contemporary.

Conservative definitions are usually based on a single criterion, such as intelligence, and identification is based on a high IQ score. These definitions usually limit giftedness and talent to a small fraction of the school population (for example, that aforementioned 5%).

In contrast, liberal definitions are based on a broad range of criteria and adopt an inclusive approach that accepts a fairly high percentage (for example, 10-15%) of the school population as having special abilities.

Contemporary definitions tend to avoid stating any specific percentage of the school population as being gifted or talented because schools differ so much in their interpretation of variables associated with the concept.

Sarah Hjertquist, president of the Otago Association for Gifted Children, an early childhood educator and co-ordinator and mother of gifted children, says giftedness is often misunderstood.

''People can be gifted in so many areas. For some children, their gifts might not even show at school; they might be gifted in a sport or art that they don't get to do at school. At home, they might be hungry to self-extend themselves on a particular interest,'' Mrs Hjertquist says.

''Common subjects picked up by gifted kids are geology, space, dinosaurs, nature ... It becomes so meaningful to them because there is so much within each topic. They gain so much understanding about life and science and they want to extend their reading and research skills. It's self-driven exploration. That's what sets them apart.

''My daughter, for instance, does rhythmic gymnastics and her drive to master a technique is amazing. It can become competitive if a child is that way inclined, but for many it is the mastering of an activity that's the important factor. For some, once they've mastered something, they'll drop it.

''Unfortunately, that perfectionist trait can also hold them back. They can be afraid that if they don't perfect something others will see them as a failure,'' Mrs Hjertquist says.

The picture becomes even cloudier when a child has a specific learning disability, physical impairment, disorder, or condition. Such children, sometimes described as ''twice exceptional'' or 2E, have hidden disabilities that may prevent them from achieving high academic results despite their advanced cognitive abilities.

Though their high ability enables them to find coping strategies to mask their learning disabilities, their learning disabilities in turn limit their chances to convert that potential. Twice exceptional students often perform inconsistently across the curriculum, appear ''average'' on standardised testing, and can become frustrated because of both their unidentified strengths and disabilities, which in turn can lead to behavioural issues.

Mrs Alexander says her son David was ''globally'' gifted, which is to say, he was good across the board academically. However, had he been gifted in just one area, ''that would have been more challenging''. Prompted by her son's giftedness and its associated issues, she has been involved in gifted education ''for a long time''.

A teacher at Taieri College who spends two hours a week catering specifically to the needs of year 7 and 8 students via Gate (Gifted and Talented Education) programmes, Mrs Alexander says 2E students pose an interesting juggling act.

''If I have a child who is twice exceptional, on the one hand I'm going to want to do things that are going to allow their potential to shine through. That might mean you don't put the same requirements on them: for instance, I might let them use a computer sometimes if they struggled with handwriting.''

On the subject of computers, Mrs Alexander has been collaborating with the Otago Association for Gifted Children (OAGC) on a series of computer camps for gifted children at Tirohanga, near Outram, over the school holidays. She is also planning a medieval camp in October in association with the Otago Medieval Society, also aimed at gifted students, ''who have passions for these kinds of topics''.

Those who suspect their offspring might have cognitive abilities beyond what might be termed ''normal'' for their age are often correct.

As president of the Otago Association for Gifted Children and mother of a gifted child, Mrs Hjertquist is used to fielding calls from parents asking about how they can get help.

''Usually - and this is something Linda Silverman [an American educational psychologist and outspoken advocate for gifted children] says - most times if a parent thinks their child is gifted, they are right. However, others may not believe that.

''It is that tall poppy syndrome. We seem to be very good at letting our sportspeople shine, but we're not so good at doing the same for others.''

Based in Dunedin, the OAGC offers support to parents and teachers of gifted children, holds informal forums and organises speakers on a range of gifted topics throughout the year. It also organises occasional visits by educational psychologists to assess giftedness. (At present, according to the OAGC, there is no one in Otago specifically qualified to identify giftedness.)

New Zealand schools have been legally required to provide education tailored to gifted and talented students since the start of the 2005 school year. Specifically, the National Administration Guideline (NAG) 1 (iii)(c) ''requires boards of trustees, through their principals and staff, to use good-quality assessment information to identify students who have special needs (including gifted and talented), and to develop and implement teaching and learning strategies to meet the needs of these students''.

A 2008 report by the Education Review Office, ''Schools' Provision for Gifted and Talented Students'', evaluated the provision for gifted and talented students in 261 primary schools and 54 secondary schools throughout New Zealand and highlighted three main stages in a school's progress towards effective provision for gifted and talented students. The three stages involve: developing a shared understanding of gifted and talented education; implementing good-quality provision for gifted and talented students; and ensuring positive outcomes for gifted and talented students.

Ms Hjertquist emphasises the OACG can't recommend schools, ''because we don't know what school would best suit a certain child''. However, she does suggest parents talk to prospective schools and discuss how their child's needs might best be met.

''If a school doesn't even want to talk about it ... well, you make up your own mind.''

Jacqui Seque, an OAGC committee member and a teacher at Concord School, where she has set up a gifted and talented extension programme called Curious Minds, is all too aware of the frustrations some parents can face.

She recalls her daughter Jemma (19) being able to recognise letters at the age of five and a-half months.

''As a young child she would do quite advanced puzzles. She is more linguistically inclined. She loves languages and is in France studying at the moment,'' Mrs Seque says.

''I knew my daughter was doing some remarkable things, but I used to get a few comments along the lines of `what do you expect when your mother's a teacher?''

'When you've been around gifted people and seen the battles they've gone through ... it's really hard when your child brings home from school a pre-reading book when they are reading chapter books, or your child is reading The Hobbit at the age of seven and takes it along to school for `book news' only to have everyone look at them strangely.''

According to the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children, only a small proportion of children may be identified as gifted at school. And that lack of recognition can lead to problems.

Some children may be lonely because their interests do not match those of their peers. They may have difficulties at school because of their unconventional behaviour and questioning attitude. They can become distressed through frustration and boredom, or through an imbalance between their intellectual and emotional development. Also, they may aim to underachieve so as to become more acceptable to their peers, a pattern which could lead to them becoming troublemakers.

''These kids can get bullied, too,'' Mrs Seque says.

''I don't know if people realise how at-risk this group of kids is. Of course, they need academic support, but they also require emotional support.

''I think there is a difference between academically talented kids - the straight-A students who find school easy, who know how to study and apply themselves - and truly gifted children, who seem to just know things but you don't know how they do. They are often extremely creative.''

Expectations can also be problematic, Mrs Seque notes.

''If a child expects they are always going to be good at something, then something goes wrong ... it can be a big deal.

''The best thing a teacher can do is to be empathetic to such children. I've had kids come to our school and we've managed to turn them around just by understanding what's driving their behaviour.

''Some preschool primary and secondary schools are making efforts to improve communication by discussing and creating pupil profiles based on evidence, as well as parent questionnaires and teaching observation scales to help make the transition into different schools easier.

They are also developing specific teaching strategies or extension and enrichment programmes,'' Ms Seque says.

''There are some great teachers out there who don't judge children on their behaviour and actually ask why are they behaving in such a way.

''I've tried to advocate as much as I can for these kids over the last few years. Somebody has got to be. Somebody has got to fight for them. There are schools out there that are trying hard ... but there are heaps of kids who just fall flat on their faces. They are lost in the system because of their behaviour or other issues. They are a special needs group and they need to be acknowledged as such.''

Adrienne Alexander puts it another way:''If you had a 14-year-old who was operating at the level of a seven-year-old, no one would argue if you said this child needed a special programme to help them.

''But if you have a seven-year-old operating at a 14-year-old level, they need to have their needs met, too.'


Characteristics of giftedness
Compared to other children your child's age, how many of these descriptors fit your child?

• Reasons well (good thinker)
• Learns rapidly
• Has extensive vocabulary
• Has an excellent memory
• Has a long attention span (if interested)
• Sensitive (feelings hurt easily)
• Shows compassion
• Perfectionist
• Intense
• Morally sensitive
• Has strong curiosity
• Perserverant in interests
• Has high degree of energy
• Prefer older companions or adults
• Has a wide range of interests
• Has a great sense of humour
• Early or avid reader (if too young to read, loves being read to)
• Concerned with justice, fairness
• Judgement mature for age at times
• Is a keen observer
• Has a vivid imagination
• Is highly creative
• Tends to question authority
• Has facility with numbers
• Good at jigsaw puzzles

For more information on gifted and talented children, visit:

www.otagogifted.org.nz
www.giftedchildren.org.nz
http://gifted.tki.org.nz